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Stories from Shelter Organizing: Ace Cardona

In the fall of 2018, SRLP launched our Shelter Organizing Campaign to support the safety of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in the New York City shelter system. For decades, our communities have faced issues accessing supportive housing services at DHS and face overall barriers to affordable and safe housing. Sylvia Rivera believed deeply in fighting for our rights for safe and affirming housing. Her legacy and our struggle continues!

The urgency is clear: DHS can not keep TGNCI people—or anyone—in their care safe and healthy, and the spread of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these conditions.

Recently, in our meetings with the DSS Office of Disability Affairs Director Liz Iannone, DHS Office of Program Development and Implementation Kevin Thrun, and Director of Disabilities Access and Functional Needs Claudette Jordan, our members have laid out the failures of DHS to provide adequate safety, accessibility, and accommodations. 

We encourage you to read below the story of Ace Cardona, a Shelter Organizing Team member, who illuminates the inadequacy of the shelter system to house our community members living as TGNC people with disabilities, as well as interviews with Allilsa and Jamie.

Ace was interviewed in May 2020; he is now living outside of the OMH system.

Adelaide, Director of Grassroots Fundraising & Communications: Ace, could you start off by introducing yourself and say how you got involved with SRLP’s Shelter Organizing Team?

Ace Cardona, Shelter Organizing Team member: My name is Ace. My pronouns are he and him. I got involved through Shelter Organizing as a client through SRLP. I feel like its very beneficial for me in so many ways because it allows me to express who I am without feeling targeted because of my identity, and it allows me to connect to my roots around other TGNCI people. 

Adelaide: Would you like to say where you’ve been living for the last few years, and how it’s connected to our larger campaign of demands?

Ace: Over the past 5 years, I’ve been living at a DHS shelter that’s contracted through OMH. Its funded by DHS, but its overseen by the Office of Mental Health. I’ve been living here for 5 years, and my experience here has not been good. I’ve been bullied because of my trans identity. I’ve been sexually assaulted because of my trans identity, and I’ve been discriminated against because of my identity and who I am and the ways I express myself. 

Victoria Bell, Finance & Fundraising Team intern: And all this was before COVID-19, correct?

Ace: Yes.

Victoria: And how is your mental state now, through all that you’ve been through?

Ace: Through all that I’ve been through, I could say I’m still battling a lot, especially still being a resident of my building. I currently have to face the people who are abusing me everyday. I have to look at them in their face while they smile and say their sarcastic remarks to me, and I can’t do anything about it because if I choose to do something about it, they would just call me out and say I’m having a mental breakdown, and they’ll just use the hospital as a punishment, so therefore I have to put up with it. I’m forced to put up with it because I can’t do anything otherwise than to seek out legal representation.

Adelaide: As part of the Shelter Organizing Team, we’ve had these demands in the Campaign for Safe Shelter that are long term. We also have specific demands we’re making around healthcare and food and hygiene during COVID-19. Is there anything you’d like to share about your experience living in your shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ace: Living in my shelter, especially during COVID-19, has not been great. There’s still that dead rat in the hallway. My building is infested with roaches. The janitors duct tape the pipes together instead of fixing it. There are mice running through the pipes. I can’t get fresh air from my radiator because its filled with dust, dirt, mold. I have to stick shirts under my radiator just so the mice won’t pop out, out of nowhere. It’s just absolutely disgusting. And the spiders wont leave themselves well enough alone.

Victoria: Wow. 

Ace: Do I think that DHS is actually doing their job? No. I think especially with me being in an OMH-contracted shelter, we shouldn’t have to be paying rent if its a shelter. You’re just taking more rent out of our pocket, for what? And then when we don’t pay rent, they get mad at us. Like, who charges money just to pay laundry downstairs? And you can’t even put change or a dollar bill, you have to put a $5 bill or up. What if that’s your last $5 that you need to eat, but instead you have to use it to do laundry? That’s how I personally feel.

Victoria: What do you think DHS should do better?

Ace: I think that DHS should have more training, more advocacy, especially for TGNC folks. I feel that there should people in the shelters who actually care or who have experienced homelessness before, who have come over those obstacles and are growing. I feel DHS should get more training and more resources for the TGNC people in DHS shelter because in my shelter, they have no idea how to get a person started in their transition. There’s no pamphlet. There’s no flyer on how to start with a name change or get insurance or how to get medical necessities covered. There’s nothing at all. So, it’s like if I didn’t know how to transition and if I was still living in here, I wouldn’t know what to do. Other than reach out, for instance, to SRLP. 

Victoria: Do you feel that they should have more shelters safe for TGNCI folks?

Ace: Yes. I do. I actually feel like they should stop building shelters and start building houses. The reason I say that is because, if you look around, we have so many shelters, but no one wants to go into them because it’s temporary. So instead, what we need is housing. We need a house, and we need whoever is in charge of the housing to be from our community: TGNC-friendly, LGBTQ-friendly. We have to make sure that we’re safe wherever we go. You can’t shelter-in-place if there’s no safe shelter to go. That’s like telling me to get away from fire, but you’re still bringing the fire closer and closer to me. You’re not bringing me to safety. You’re still burning me. You’re still putting me in harms way.

Victoria: This is why my passion, what I want to do in my work is to have a place for TGNC people. I’m working hard to get a place for us all to be safe, and to be somewhere where you could actually be yourself. 

Ace: If us trans folks get housing, I personally feel it should not be funded by the government. Because the government controls us. They want to monitor what we’re doing, they want to see where this money is going, you know?

Victoria: That’s why I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way. Not through grant funding, but going out to people in our community who really want to be a part of that cause. Most of these places talk. I want something where we can really help someone. Let’s build the community the way its supposed to be built. Even people in our community, the money doesn’t go to the community the way its supposed to. They get our names and once they get that funding, they say fuck us after that.

Ace: They only care about the money. Nowadays, there’s not a lot of people who care about and value their job. Either way they’re still gonna get paid. They will find someone to replace you and bring in more money. 

Victoria: These people who say they’re for the community, I really want them to come in and see how they are really managing this money. Because you take these pictures and build this fantasy that this is the work you’re doing, but no one is really there to help the community. I am tired of hearing what my community is going through. And no one is really there and on their side. It really is burning my bubble. I want to be there as the one to really be there to help. I’m going to be there for my community no matter what. 

Adelaide: Our history of Sylvia, of Marsha, is about community-building. Not just one singular leader, but all of us taking care of each other. As a final question, Ace, if you wanted the SRLP community to know one thing if they’re reading this interview about the #DHSIsAMess campaign or your experience, what would that be?

Ace: Even though I’m in a shitty situation, no matter what, we can still rise above it and we’re still going to make it out of it. SRLP and other organizations will have our back and advocate for us. Yes, #DHSIsAMess, but we’re not a mess. We come up and we clean up that shit. That is what we do. 

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